In Memoriam: Joan Sutherland 1926-2010

By Jason Victor Serinus

La Stupenda is no more. The brilliant coloratura soprano Joan Sutherland, who died a thousand deaths onstage after emitting flawless high E-flats, died on Oct. 10 at her Swiss home near Montreux.

Born Nov. 7, 1926, in Australia, Sutherland received her initial training from her mother, a mezzo-soprano who had studied with the famed Mathilde Marchesi. Young Joan regularly practiced the same Marchesi exercises that built the career of many a stunning coloratura, including Nellie Melba.

After winning a vocal competition, she moved to London in 1951 to continue vocal studies. It took four auditions before she was accepted into the Royal Opera at Covent Garden. Thank God she persisted.

The most decisive influence on Sutherlandís career was her husband, conductor Richard Bonynge, whom she married in 1954. It took him three years to convince his wife, who had once thought herself a mezzo, that her exceptionally large, agile voice was ideally suited for the coloratura heroines of Bellini, Donizetti, Handel, and early Verdi.

Starting in 1957, Sutherland created a sensation singing leads in Handelís Alcina, Donizettiís Emilia di Liverpool, and Mozartís Don Giovanni. She was already 33 when she revived Donizettiís Lucia di Lammermoor at her Covent Garden debut.

Several early recordings for London/Decca confirmed her supremacy in coloratura roles. These include her 1958 Acis and Galatea, a 1959 recital of Donizetti and Verdi conducted by Nello Santi, and her indispensable 1959 Don Giovanni, conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini.

The 1960, Sutherland followed Maria Callasí lead by creating vocally astounding portrayals in Belliniís previously neglected I Puritani and La sonnambula. The same year, London/Decca released Sutherlandís two-LP set, The Art of the Prima Donna. Conducted by Francesco Molinari-Pradelli, the meticulously annotated album presents Sutherland singing 15 arias associated with the famous coloraturas of a bygone era. It remains one of the greatest operatic recitals of all time.

San Francisco Classical Voice